Learning to drive

It’s summer, which means a proliferation of vehicles sporting signs that make everyone grip the wheel a little harder, slow down a little more cautiously and change lanes prohibitively, like people skulking away from a leper after noticing its scarlet “L.”

“Student Driver.”

I, however, have pity for them. I sympathize with the fear that comes with learning to navigate a multi-ton piece of machinery – a vehicle that is worth more than a student’s combined high school salary and worth as much as several years of college.

I never learned to drive from my parents, the way farmers’ children do in the wide open spaces of Midwest farming or the way city kids do in the wide open spaces of the Arena parking lot. Instead, I learned from the most formal place I could – Drivers Education class.

Truthfully, my first visions behind a wheel were in a simulation setting. I wasn’t equipped with a learner’s license. I didn’t have a car, after all, and I didn’t see the point in getting a driver’s license – especially one that meant nothing in the long run – when I had nothing to use it with.

Because I had no experience whatsoever, I was a frightfully timid student driver. My vehicle wasn’t festooned with a large bright orange sign – one that called attention to my inexperience, causing those around me to treat me like a fragile egg, not a driving machine. My teacher wanted us driving in real traffic, not traffic that has been notified of the sudden youthful danger that has just pulled alongside it.

My turn in the car was one of utter fear. I had no concept of how hard or soft to push the pedals, and so my automatic transmission manipulation felt much like someone learning with a manual – jerky, with sudden stops and frightened faces within the vehicle. The teal colored Ford Taurus that served as my first learning vessel was jarred, reeling back on its suspension during take-off and lurching forward as if vomiting as I would stop.

Eventually, it all just clicks, and the movement of a vehicle becomes second nature. We all start to feel how the car moves, in touch with its inner stabilization and privy to its most intimate sounds. The operation is done without thinking, as if the vehicle becomes an extension of our mind, delivering us through town and across the country with mental prowess instead of mechanical science.

Those first few drives, though, are as cautious as can be. When I notice a Student Driver placard alongside or behind car, I take notice. I look for the fearful turning, the overuse of the blinker, the analyzing of every move. I feel for the students – being supported and judged by an audience inside their own vehicle; their peers and authority, fellow students and their teacher.

And I think back to my first few turns of the wheel. I picked up my license and wondered what to do with it. My 0.25 credit hours showed up on my transcripts like a trophy, my South Dakota driver’s license like a badge. But I still had nothing to drive. And it stayed that way for a few more months, until my first car arrived – a used, battered 1969 Volkswagen Beetle with “automatic stickshift” technology.

I had no placard then, so maybe nobody saw me. But with white knuckles and the smell of aged faux-leather, I taught myself how to drive without fear. And once the fear is gone, the lessons are complete.

This was lovingly handwritten on July 15th, 2007